#KATUP – Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder

#KATUP Pt. 2

Forward (From Previous Post)

With the one-year anniversary of my joining the Kona-crew approaching, it is only fitting that I have another grand adventure. After all, you have to weed out the duds before any contract renewals, and what better way than with another totally ridiculous ride plan that doesn’t really seem to make sense?

If you remember, last year we took a bike-packing trip that doubled in expected length and turned from camping to glamping.

This summer, Barry Wicks (Kona Team Manager) asked me to join him and some of his friends from Bend, Oregon on the Oregon Trail. Yes, that Oregon Trail.

There were threats of dysentery and lost oxen, broken axles and snake bites. So, the dysentery was just a shameful shuttle back home, the lost oxen just anything I needed to find, broken axles can be any bike parts, and snake bites are flat tires. We were embarking on the first edition of the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder; a 5-day 4-night point-to-point race of gravel roads and camping (June 18-23). Over that time, we would be expected to cover 350 miles and 28,000 feet of climbing.

So, that sounds like sufficient adventure, right? Nope. Barry, never satisfied with what normal people would consider a hard week, wanted to add the Skull 120 Gravel Grinder on Saturday the 15th; a 120(128)-mile circuit with 9,850 feet of climbing, exploring Harney County, Oregon. This event boasts 20% percentage pavement, 68% gravel roads, and 12% “natural surfaces”. Turns out, no woman had ever finished in 4 years it had been run.

To see how the Skull 120 panned out, see the previous post.

Structure of the event

The Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder really lets you see a diverse range of ground, as the event is a point-to-point gravel stage race- the first of its kind. And yes, as we are camping, that meant pitching a tent each night and rolling it back up each morning. Each rider was provided with a large tub in which they could fit their trinkets, and the tubs were transported via box trucks each day. The VIP service meant the crew would provide you a tent, set it up and tear it down for you.

Photo by Adam Lapierre (Camp night 1. Can you guess the VIP vs scrub zone area?)
Photo by Adam Lapierre ( The views in this event are UNREAL)

Each morning we would wake up, get our coffee and bathroom situation situated, and hit the dining hall for a catered breakfast. Each day it was oats, potatoes, eggs, fixin’s, and maybe a few other things here and there. After breakfast we would take down our tents, pack our bins, take them over to the loading zone, then get our bikes ready for the stage ahead. After a short pre-race meeting, we would roll to the start of the stage. Most stages required a 5-10 mile easy spin to the start of the timed segment. This mileage was included in the stage length, and the roll-out usually was to get us out of town and off of busier highway roads. Once we gathered at the timing start, we would hit the gas and not slow down until the finish! Then, like the start, the timing finish was reached before the end of the stage length. This meant each day’s actual racing distance was closer to 50 miles rather than 70 or 80, and we could regroup and chat on the way back in. But just as the racing distance was effectively shorter, this meant that usually our climbing was even more compacted, and, the day’s downhill was usually reserved for the roll back into town. Also, as it is point-to-point, some days had net elevation loss, and some net elevation gain.

After each stage, a lunch of sandwiches and various goodies was provided back at camp. We could then shower, get a (paid) massage, nap, pitch our tents, and in the case of Barry and I, snack incessantly until dinner. Dinner was served from 5-8 and each night it was DELICIOUS. A few evenings there was live music and other activities, but I was too cracked for anything but the tossing of a few cornhole bags.

Sleepy time came early to the camp, often while there was still a faint glow in the sky, but it was for the best because most of us were up before 6AM the next morning, just in time to start it all again.““““““““““““““

Stage 1 Start: Sisters. 77 miles, 6352 feet vert, 78% gravel

I think that Stage 1 was the most diverse of all of the stages, or at least, it was the one I noticed the most of.

Photo by Adam Lapierre (I took a moment in this turn to tell the ladies to enjoy the view)

We had a neutral roll-out of about 10 miles out of Sisters until we hit a dirt road where the timed section started. At this point, there was a few minutes of waiting for regroup and a mass exodus of lycra-clad cyclists into the woods as they lay down their bikes to go for a pee. Honestly was like a scene from a horror movie.

Once we were rolling hard, a few of the women were on the front. I tried to keep myself in the mix and my eyes on them. The pace felt a little uncomfortable and I was really feeling the soreness from Saturday (it is now Wednesday). We climbed up a chunky road, before we hit the sand which was loose and deep. And long. I have no idea how long we were in the sand, but it could have ended a few miles before it did. After the sand, we descended an awesome section of wagon trail, of which we were told was legitimately a section of Oregon Trail Wagon traverse. How cool! It was a pretty gnarly section that involved some pumice-laden step downs, and sand ruts. Sarah Sturm and I were together through this, but Serena had a gap on us. Sarah and I descended the (smoother) gravel roads that followed similarly, keeping speed in check and turning at a reasonable and safe speed. We both climbed with strength. Eventually, we had Serena in sight and reeled her in. From there, the three of us rode as a group and all really enjoyed it – none of us had ever ridden a gravel event with a group of females before. Let’s just say we are a chattier bunch than any man-group.

Photo by Adam Lapierre (An example of a more tame portion of trail)

Though I was feeling the pace early in the stage, by the time we were climbing gravel roads to beautiful mountain views I was feeling relaxed and even again. Each time we had to descend, Serena showed her gravel downhill skills and left Sarah and I chasing. Seeing this, I hoped to be able to catch up with Serena at the bottom of the last descent and take it to the line in a sprint. This plan would have been obviously fruitless to me if I had looked at the elevation profile of the race before we started, because the entire last 10 miles were steep, twisty downhills. Serna came in 1st on the stage and had a nearly 2-minute lead. I came in second and Sarah came in 3rd around 10 seconds back from me.

Stage 2  Start: Blue River 66.4 miles, 6348 feet vert, 80% gravel

Going in to stage 2, I couldn’t risk being taken to a downhill line again, so I aimed to stay with the men as long as possible. It was misty when we rolled out, and raining by the time we reached the time start. I pulled on my 7mesh Oro jacket, glad that I had it. Many people were in short sleeves, shivering. The day started with a 4,000 foot climb and I was able to hang with the lead group until mile 13, 2,000 feet into the climb. Where at the bottom of the climb a large portion of the group definitively ejected themselves, here in the middle of the climb I was simply losing an inch or two of ground every few bike lengths, until eventually I couldn’t see the group past the next turn.

Photo by Adam Lapierre (It me!)

Having stripped it off during the long climb, I stopped to pull my jacket on for the descent. Down and down and down we went. Thankfully it was cloudy or I may have careened off of the edge for the views. I was solo, but every now and again I could swear there was small dust cloud from someone in front of me. I was glad I had my rain jacket and gloves, and was actually a little worried for those who didn’t because I was getting so cold it was hard to control my hands on my brakes. My Garmin data showed a low temp of 32F at the top – literally freezing. The road was leveling out ever so slightly through an area that was being actively logged. I see a rider off his bike on the side of the road and slowed down to see what was up, and I glad I did, because I realized why he went down. There was an erosion ditch cutting across the road and he must have been knocked off by it. He was okay and I pedaled on. It was hard to notice the landscape changes during the climb, but on the way down it was cool to go from seemingly barren mountain top to what seemed like thick, lush, old-growth forest.

Photo by Adam Lapierre (So much Groad)

I ended up finishing the stage alone, but Sarah was across the finish line soon after me – unfortunately, it was in the back of a car, though. That large ditch took her out just as it took out the rider ahead of me. She was pretty shaken up, bruised and battered, but after being examined was found to have nothing but a separated shoulder. Though she was out of the race, she did try to ride a few more stages of the event – way to CRUSSSHHHH.

Stage 3 start: Oakridge, 75.9 miles, 9309 feet vert, 77% gravel

Stage 3 was warned to be not just the hardest stage of the event, but the hardest day on a bike we may ever have. Carl Decker and Barry Wicks had been talking about it the evening before, saying guys would be crazy to go too hard at first. Whereas the day before started with a 4,000 foot climb, this one started with a 5,000 foot climb, then another. We were reaching elevations of over 6,000 feet, which is pretty high for me. We all started at a fairly reasonable pace on the pavement, and I took the front wearing my new leader’s gloves and jersey (HELLA SWEET!!). Sure the tempo set would have been nice to draft during, but, I much preferred to be at the front where I could control my position, and my heart rate.

Photo by Adam Lapierre (The Leaders on the Start)

Once again I was the lone female in the group and was able to hang on to the top of the first big climb – but as soon as we started going downhill the dust trail left by the group of men, combined with the pace and the steep turns and sheer cliffs left me hanging off the back. I wasn’t alone; there were a few other guys also a bit put off but the crash-potential, and we were leap-frogging each other the whole way down and back up again.

Photo by Adam Lapierre (I’m the shorty in green hanging my way up the climb)

The views from the top were so amazing it is hard to imagine that the (upcoming) awesome wagon road through the forest was all in the same day!

Photo by Adam Lapierre (Just such incredible scenery!)

At the near bottom of the other side of the second big climb was aid station 2 where I stopped. This is where the “explorer” route joined up with the shorter “adventure” route, and the adventurers there cheered me on, helped to fill my bottles, and encouraged me to stuff my face with copious amounts of cookies. And as our routes rejoined at this point, it meant I was never really alone for the rest of the ride, as each adventure rider was a new carrot ahead of me and a new person to share a smile with as I passed.

Photo by Adam Lapierre (Riders descend the favorite wagon road)

The wagon road that carried us from the mountains to the next gravelley fireroad was everyone’s favorite part of the weekend. It was a double track road with a single-track feel. So much braap.

Photo by Adam Lapierre

But, what has fun must then suffer, and we had 8 miles of uphill washboard gravel and then sand between the end of the wagon road and the end of the timed section. Despite really losing steam on this section, I again finished 1st and extended my lead in the GC. And when the promoters billed this stage as the hardest, I doubt they meant it was this section, but ask any of us out there and ☠.

Stage 4 start Gilchrist, 58 miles, 2273 feet vert, 87% gravel

Day 4 was advertised as an easy stage, but I know that easy/short = HARD. Knowing the pace would be high, and that I already had a solid lead, I had to decide if I wanted to race or to ride.

I chose to race.

We started on a very sandy and dusty road, where only one or two lines provided speed and the rest of the surface was loose, slow, and nearly dangerous. The pace was high right away, and I was ready for once in my life. A few times I felt it slowing and I went to the front to drive it high again.

Photo by Adam Lapierre (I’m on the front of the bike race!)
Photo by Adam Lapierre (The dust persisted even for drone shots)

Pretty deep into the straight miles-long start, I realized Serena was still us. The group was surging due to attacks off the front, and both she and I were being yo-yoed with the efforts. Luckily, I was able to withstand one more hard surge than she was and while she lost the lead group I was able to hang on. I aimed to stay on for 15 miles. Once I made it to 15 I aimed for 20, then I aimed for 30! Then I aimed for 25.

Photo by Adam Lapierre

The sand turned to a rocky double track. I got gapped off up and over a short hill, and my mind committed to being dropped. But in the straights I could still see the group and I saw two others chasing and I was inspired to chase as well! A 10 minute effort of threshold got me back on, and earned me a few way-to-go’s as well. But, I knew there was one more day ahead and I just couldn’t keep it up, so I dropped off the group soon after that mega effort. And, despite a big slow down in a moon-like sector, I was still only minutes behind the lead group at the finish, and was even able to catch Barry on the ride back in to town.

Photo by Adam Lapierre (Some reprieve from the sand, and proof I could keep it tight)
Photo by Adam Lapierre
Photo by Adam Lapierre (You can see the deep sand we were contending with)

Stage 5 start LaPine, 70.9 miles, 4403 feet vert, 50% gravel

My lead was pretty secure going in to Stage 5, but obviously I had to see how far I could stick it out. The route included a lot of pavement and it was worth being with a group when you could be because a draft was worth a lot – gotta love coasting at the speed you’d normally have to pedal 270 watts for! The first section followed another logging road that was super dry, and we were hitting sections of deep dust that caused visibility so low I couldn’t see the rider in front of me. I was an impressive show of bravery for me to trudge onward as close as I did.

I hung in for quite a while, and even chased back on after part of the group missed a turn onto a short section of single-track. But, as history showed, the efforts of chasing on really started taking a toll and once I saw we were 20 miles from the finish but still had 4,000 feet of climbing to go, I let the group roll ahead and kept to my own steady pace. I kind of regret it, though, because after a short physical assessment and we started going uphill, I found I had a lot left in the tank and would have really liked to have duked it out on the climb. But, that is the weird thing about riding with people who are racing each other – they have a reason to go hard when you don’t.

Photo by Adam Lapierre (There was snow on the route!)
Photo by Adam Lapierre

Though I am not sure what my gap was after each day, I finished out the 5-day stage race with about a 45 minute lead – even after losing nearly 2 minutes on day 1.

Photo by Adam Lapierre (Thanks for the lift, ladies)

It was a hard few days, and I found the key was eating enough during each stage to avoid bonking, drinking enough to ensure I didn’t get dehydrated at the high(ish) altitudes, and keeping the really hard efforts in check. Sleep was not guaranteed (it never is during hard efforts, is it?) and the schedule was hectic, but it was nice to be able to focus on nothing but riding my bike and hanging out while stuffing my face!

Overall podium
Photo by Adam Lapierre (Barry got 3rd!!)

For anyone looking for an adventure, fun week, or hard race, I say look into the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder for next year. Any geology classes are encouraged to go as well, because I would like a detailed outline of the day’s oregenies, outcrops, and bedrocks as well as samples upon the return.

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